Sustainability and the Design Mindset

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Why am I talking about sustainability?

I am not an expert. I am not an environmental scientist, nor do I live an extreme zero waste lifestyle. I am first and foremost a designer, and I want to present sustainability to you through my lens of design, and design thinking. It’s my belief that sustainability, while an environmental problem, is also best posed as a design challenge, and that approaching this with a design mindset has a lot of power in the future of our environment and the way we interact with it. 

Why does it matter to me?

However, before we dive into that, I want to tell you about when sustainability really started to matter to me. In 2011 I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti for humanitarian aid work. A group of about 11 young adults and I worked construction in a small seaside town called Jacmal on the southern coast of Haiti. In the cool mornings we would frame walls or pour concrete, and when the sun was high and the day too hot, we would break, visit the town, or go exploring. On one of these explorations we went to a market near the sea, and next to the market the townspeople were burning a small hill of trash. I was already 5’10”-5’11 at that point, and the trash pile was well above my head. The pile contained plastic milk bottles, broken play dolls, banana peels, and everything in between. The townspeople were bringing some of the vast quantities of litter from the beach to the pile to burn. Amongst what they brought were Voss water bottle caps, and a broken china plate decorated with daisies. Daisies are not native to Haiti, and I could imagine this broken plate piece dumped into the shore in Florida and being dragged by ocean currents all the way to Haiti. The plastic was burning with black smoke, and was blowing into the market. We had a local guide with us, and I asked him, “why are you burning this trash?” I thought they must have a trash service or another place to put it surely. He gave me a funny look and replied, “Because it has nowhere else to go.” This is the reality of many of the poorest nations around the world, they suffer disproportionately as: the last stop of waste of wealthier countries; homes of heavily polluted factories; they may be exploited for cheap labor; and watch their ecosystem change at a more dramatic rate than our own.

Where does design come in?

As a designer I think it’s interesting to think about the design and stimuli surrounding waste and energy consumption. I would like you all to briefly and objectively think about the process of drinking a bottle of water and throwing it away. What would be your process flow of the actions of throwing away a water bottle? What do you know about this process now? 

For the most part one would: Drink the water; walk up to the trash bin; and put the bottle in the bin. What is this experience like? Perhaps you would get a whiff of something in the bin; perhaps there is the gentle crushing noise of squished plastic. After we throw the bottle away we generally act as if the bottle no longer exists; or if we recycled the bottle we believe in the “magic of recycling.” The truth of recycling water bottles is that only 1 in 5 bottles will be recycled; and if the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) of most water bottles is mixed with other plastic it becomes “down cycled” and cannot be used as plastic for a water bottle again. 

But what if when you threw away that plastic bottle you heard the sound of a child coughing? A sound like I heard that day at the market in Haiti. What if a plume of black smoke erupted from the can? Sustainability really is mindfulness; mindful not only of one action but a system of actions and their consequences. The design mindset is often very good at understanding the whole system and integration. Yet, our population experiences a disconnect between our waste and consumption, and the grander consequences.

How can we use design to bridge the gap?

How can we use design to bridge the gap? I had an odd Architecture professor my freshman year who used to talk about the “power of the in-between.” This could refer to anything from a passageway between two rooms to the connectivity of experiences. Perhaps one of the best examples is in virtual reality; one puts on a pair of Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard headsets and one is taken to another world. It can be a magical and transformative experience. We know of course, that this tech innovation took countless hours of thinking, prototyping, and code to develop a seamless user experience and allow the user to jump from one reality to another. 

The same problem exists right now in sustainability. We live in a reality in which we put a plastic bottle in the recycling bin and the experience stops.

The in-between is that the bottle may or may not go on towards the path on recycling depending on if the load becomes misplaced or contaminated. There are several companies involved: the company who picks up your water bottle will not recycle it; and many groups of people which will interact with the waste: cleaners, utility, manufactures, etc. There are so many factors and choices in this in-between. 

Finally, if the bottle is not recycled, another possible experience begins in which another person, community, or country is burdened with the waste of another group. Not only can this be an environmental, and humanitarian burden, it is also a huge economic waste. “[A report from 2016], published by the World Economic Forum and Ellen MacArthur Foundation, finds that 95 percent of the value of plastic packaging material alone, worth $80 billion to $120 billion annually, is lost to the economy*.”

So what else is in this “in-between” of sustainability?

So what else in this “in-between” of sustainability? Sustainability is a multi-faceted concept that is not just about how much you recycle. I want to introduce you a sustainable design methodology called Cradle to Cradle. It is a play-off of “cradle to grave” methodologies in which you plan out a product’s life from beginning to end and was developed by sustainability thought leaders William Mcdonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle takes a more holistic view and focuses on designing a product’s lifecycle from start to finish and start again. The methodology has five pillars which I have related to a paper notebook to briefly explain:

Material Health - “Does the paper manufacturing process need heavy chemical treatments? Will the manufacturing process pollute?”
Material Reutilization - “How easy is it to recycle this paper notebook? What energy is needed to reuse the material?”
Renewable Energy Use - “Can I use renewable energy to make this notebook? How can my energy needed from this process continue to be available?”
Water Stewardship - “Can I reduce the water I need to make notebooks? How clean is the water leaving the notebook factory?”
Social Responsibility “Is this notebook fair trade? Do the manufacturing workers have a safe and clean work environment?”

*There is a lot more to the five concepts above and I highly recommend reading the Cradle to Cradle book to learn more.

I would also propose that responsible economics be added, as part of keeping sustainable products viable is keeping them available in the market, and considering the cost of recycling post-product.  When we take this holistic view, sustainability becomes not just a series of choices but a lifestyle and business-style as well.


What can we do?


*This graph is based on the same graph from the book: The Upcycle by William Mcdonough and Michael Braungart

So after all this what can we do? There are two ways to approach that question: what we can do as individuals; and what we can accomplish as a system. The graph above is from the book The Upcycle, and it explains how we can work towards less bad and more good. Generally, our individual choices work toward less bad; such as trying to personally reduce your plastic waste may lead to less plastic in landfills; but it doesn’t solve the problem of plastic waste. What we can accomplish together as a system can work toward more good; such as redesigning plastic recycling services and manufacturing to work towards a circular service design. The most important part of this process is being willing to change our habits for the better.


I created a list of six habits an individual could easily change to do less bad:

1.     Bring your own permanent silverware, dishes/ containers, and a water bottle to the office to reduce what you throw away on a regular basis.

2.     Make recycling more accessible: keep a paper bag near you for goods that can easily be recycled such as scrap paper, sticky notes, or certain food containers (must be cleaned).

3.     Know your personal recycling. Check out these recycling posters by You could print one out for your office or home.

4.     Mind your energy consumption: Don’t over charge your laptops or electronics; leaving your plug in just wastes energy if the energy can’t go anywhere. Don’t leaving lights on in an unoccupied room, etc.

5.     Carpool, bike, and use public transportation  when possible.

6.     Measure your carbon footprint. Check out this calculator by The Nature Conservancy.


I also created a list of a couple ideas that one’s office or studio could implement to make one’s system more sustainable:

1.     Office composting: Right now, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished.* This is due in part to commercial agriculture (lack of crop rotation, etc.) and also because our biological waste (e.g. apple cores, potato skins) go into plastic bags in landfills and never properly decompose back into vital topsoil from which we can grow new plants. We are currently threatening our future food by not properly managing our waste.

2.     Understand your “in-between.” We can know more about what exists after the trash or recycling bin. This knowledge will make us more powerful as conscious consumers and designers. 

3.     Work with suppliers with “Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).” “EPR is a strategy designed to promote the integration of environmental costs associated with goods throughout their life cycles into the market price of the products. Extended producer responsibility legislation is a driving force behind the adoption remanufacturing initiatives as it focuses on the end-of-use treatment of consumer products and has the primary aim to increase the amount and degree of product recovery and to minimize the environmental impact of waste materials.**” We see this in companies such as Patagonia, which has a take-back program for their fleece, and other clothing.

4.     Know your office or studio recycling. Participate in more than just your personal recycling. Find out how you can recycle items such as printer cartridges and old equipment.

5.     Be kind, and encourage. Kindness and support always go farther than you think, and are a key element to positive change.


Thank you, I hope you enjoyed reading.